Under the radar

At some point in your life, you have seen a television commercial where a product pitchman gestures wildly and loudly declares that his prices are so low that his very sanity should be questioned.


Tommy Moxley is not that guy.

The soft-spoken owner of Appliance Land, the city's largest independent appliance retailer, doesn't do television or radio ads. Alhough his prices aren't "insane," he does claim he can match or beat any rival's deal.

"We know that we have the best prices around," he said.

That's a bold statement to make, considering the proliferation of big-box appliance stores that have entered the market. But Mr. Moxley's affiliation with Anaheim, Calif.-based BrandSource, a member-owned purchasing group made up of 2,200 independent retailers, gives him the same manufacturer pricing that the national chains get.

The unassuming 66-year-old's newest venture, Furniture Land, is also affiliated with BrandSource.

Roy Brown, BrandSource's associate for the South Atlantic region, said Mr. Moxley is "laid back" for two reasons. One, that's just how he is; and two, he doesn't have to be overly aggressive to win business.

"You don't need that if you've got the integrity and the people and the service to back you up," said Mr. Brown, who has known Mr. Moxley for 20 years.

Mr. Moxley's right-hand man, sales manager Ronnie Varner, said most consumers automatically assume the small business can't compete with major appliance retailers such as Sears, Best Buy, Lowe's and -- the market's newest appliance retailer -- HH Gregg.

"Just getting people through the door is the biggest problem," said Mr. Varner, who has been with Mr. Moxley since he opened the business 32 years ago in a building so small that only a dozen models could be displayed at any given time.

Some might be surprised to know that Appliance Land's business is stronger now than it was before the rise of the national chains.

"In the '70s and '80s, we'd struggle to do $25,000 a month," Mr. Varner said. "Now, we're doing about $700,000 a month."

Appliance Land's best year was 2006, when sales reached $8 million.

Because of the slumping housing market, the company probably will meet, but not exceed, that record when it closes the books on 2007.

"Being flat to the best year you've ever had is not so bad," Mr. Varner said.

Right place, right time

Timing has played a key role in Appliance Land's success.

Mr. Moxley opened the business in 1976, the same year that state regulators required Georgia Power Co. to stop selling appliances, which it had been doing since the Great Depression era. The utility historically made little from appliance sales but profited from the additional use of electricity.

"They said they either had to get into the appliance business and out of the electricity business or stay in the electricity business and get out of the appliance business," Mr. Moxley said.

Exiting the market opened up opportunity for smaller independents.

The other fortuitous event was Mr. Moxley's decision to place his store in Martinez, which put the company at ground zero for the explosive growth that would occur in Columbia County during the following three decades.

"Martinez grew, Evans grew, everything just grew," said Mr. Moxley, whose first location at Washington and Davis roads was financed with a $1,500 bank loan.

Mr. Moxley said he never thought the business would grow as large as it today. Then again, there also was a time when he never thought he'd be in the appliance business.

The middle child of William and Frances Moxley, he grew up on Pennsylvania Avenue (then a dirt road) in the Tuxedo Park section of town just south of Wrightsboro Road.

His father, a sales rep who worked with regional grocery stores, died from a stroke at age 36 when Tommy was 13.

Mr. Moxley's mother is known in certain circles as one of the best cake makers in town.

"Each one takes about four hours to make," she said during the annual Thanksgiving luncheon her son has for friends and family at the showroom.

As a youth, Mr. Moxley was a good student, though he admits being more interested in shop classes than academic theories. Instead of college, he decided to follow in his father's footsteps; he enlisted in the Navy after graduating from the Academy of Richmond County in 1960.

True to the Navy's slogan, Mr. Moxley got to see the world. He was a radar operator on the USS Dahlgren, a guided-missile frigate that participated in Cold War-era cat-and-mouse games between the U.S. and Soviet fleets.

After his tour of duty, he returned home and met his future wife, Gail, on a blind date at The Green Jacket restaurant at Daniel Village.

He also found work at the new Procter & Gamble laundry detergent plant on Marvin Griffin Road, where he rose through the ranks to become a process operator, the highest level attainable for hourly employees. He oversaw a crew of eight that monitored equipment used to formulate the detergent.

Working at the Procter & Gamble plant was, and still is, considered to be one of the best blue-collar jobs in Augusta, but after 12 years on the job, Mr. Moxley was ready for a change.

"It wasn't as challenging as I would have liked," he said. "I felt like I needed something more in my life."

During his time at the plant, Mr. Moxley moonlighted as a appliance installer with his uncle Roy Moxley. For years, the men did service work for appliance retailers such as Sears, Georgia Power and the now-defunct J.M. Fields, where he met Mr. Varner, a salesman.

When state regulators forced Georgia Power out of the appliance sales business in 1976, Mr. Moxley smelled an opportunity.

"The timing seemed right," he said.

He and friend Justin Pittman, whose wife, Patty, worked with Mr. Moxley's wife at the Medical College of Georgia, decided to bankroll a small appliance showroom at 3733 Washington Road, a building that previously housed The Pixie, a women's boutique (it's now occupied by B&S Engraving and Trophy Shop).

"We called it Appliance Land because we wanted to be first in the telephone directory," Mr. Pittman said.

With the loan from Citizens & Southern Bank, the partners purchased a small inventory of appliances and hired Mr. Varner away from J.M. Fields.

Mr. Varner handled sales, Mr. Pittman kept the books and Mr. Moxley handled most other tasks, including appliance deliveries and installations.

"I was on the paper-shuffling side, and Tommy was the get-it-done man," Mr. Pittman said. "We were kind of a natural team."

At the time, Washington Road was a two-lane highway and customer traffic was scarce.

"It was lean and mean," Mr. Varner recalled. "We spent a lot of time polishing appliances."

Said Mr. Moxley's older brother Mike: "I don't think anybody at that time knew what it would turn into."

Taking off

The company's sales growth coincided with Columbia County's population growth as homebuilders stocked their new-house subdivisions with Mr. Moxley's appliances.

Today, builders account for 40 percent of Appliance Land's sales.

"I think people underestimate the value of having someone locally who is so well-connected to the manufacturers," said Robin Grey, the interior design director for Bill Beazley Homes, one of the market's top builders. "If there is ever a problem, he (Mr. Moxley) is always there to make it right. You can't get that kind of service just anywhere."

In Appliance Land's early days, consumers would flock to the store to learn more about newfangled appliances such as microwave ovens (which cost $600) or upgrade their television to a 19-inch color set (the most popular size at the time).

The company tried to set itself apart from department stores and other retailers by marketing its staff as appliance experts. During the late 1970s, Mr. Varner was in advertisements billed as "Mr. Microwave."

"I still have customers come up to me who remember those days," he said.

Longtime customer George Inman said he and his family continue to deal with Appliance Land because of the service.

"You can buy what he sells anywhere, but the bottom line is the service," said Mr. Inman, a retired president of Club Car. "They live up to their word."

Mr. Moxley's business soon outgrew its small showroom and warehouse. Fortunately, a businessman developing a nearby pool hall backed out of the project and sold the half-completed building to Mr. Moxley in 1979.

The larger building would eventually become Appliance Land's existing showroom. In contrast to the small storage shed Mr. Moxley built behind his first store -- which is still standing -- the warehouse behind his existing store now houses more than $1 million in inventory on any given day.

The company opened Appliance Land stores in Aiken in 1984 and in south Augusta the following year. Both stores were closed within three years, though, because Mr. Moxley said he was unable to manage the branch locations as well as he would have liked.

"It was personnel reasons," he said.

More changes were in store as the company entered its sharpest growth curve during the 1990s.

Increased retail competition made it unprofitable for the company to carry electronics such as televisions -- the company for a few years was called Appliance & Television Land -- and small appliances such as coffee makers and popcorn poppers.

"Things like cell phones got to be such giveaway items," Mr. Pittman said, referring to low-margin merchandise.

Appliance Land now specializes in carrying midpriced to high-end appliances from major brands such as General Electric and Whirlpool, though it still offers a few lower-priced products. Mr. Varner points out that the store's dishwasher line ranges from a $168 model to a $3,000 machine.

The next big change occurred in 1991, when Mr. Pittman, the company co-founder, decided to leave the business and return to MCG, where he is now the director of auxiliary services.

"I guess I was just ready for a change," Mr. Pittman said. "I had run my course there and I had a pretty good offer here ... Tommy's really taken the ball and done a great job."

Shortly after Mr. Pittman's departure, Mr. Moxley brought in Gail to help with accounting.

"I wasn't smart at books, and I like the way she does them," Mr. Moxley said of his wife.

She isn't the only family member working at the business. His three sons, Tommy Jr., Chris and Dan, are all employees. Chris works in the accounting department, Dan in the technology department and Tommy part time at the Furniture Land store.

Mr. Moxley said Furniture Land, at 1051 Broad St., "is growing in leaps and bounds" but acknowledged that it took about 11/2 years to turn a profit. For a while, he considered selling the property, which formerly housed Cobern Furniture Co., but says the operation now complements Appliance Land by providing income when appliance sales slow. About 10 of Mr. Moxley's 30 employees work at the downtown furniture store.

Turnover in retail sales is notoriously high, but many of Mr. Moxley's employees have been with him more than a decade.

The future

The only expansion plan on the horizon for Mr. Moxley is finding more employee and customer parking for his Furniture Land store. The lot directly behind Furniture Land is owned by a businessman who limits its use to his employees only.

"There's not enough parking on Broad Street," Mr. Moxley said. "There's really not."

He said he is in talks with Wachovia Bank about acquiring the vacant lot next to its drive-through branch at the corner of 11th and Jones streets.

Mr. Moxley has to split his time between the two locations; the furniture business represents only about a quarter of Appliance Land's sales but is growing at a much faster rate. The Appliance Land store, though no longer at the outer fringes of Augusta's suburbia, probably will remain where it is.

"We're still in a real good location right now," he said.

Mr. Moxley no longer spends every waking hour at the business, choosing to give his management team the latitude to make most day-to-day business decisions. The free time he now has is spent traveling with his wife. Thy take frequent pleasure trips to Europe, the Caribbean and Pacific Rim regions, in addition to numerous industry conventions and shows each year.

When not on an airplane or at the office, he can usually be found on his pontoon boat at Thurmond Lake with his grandson, Lance.

Fully turning the business over to the next generation of Moxleys probably won't happen for several more years.

The man who never went to business school, let alone college, said he wants his sons to become more educated to keep up with today's technology-driven, ultra-competitive business world.

Times were simpler when he started the business; all it took then was hard work, a little cash and a business license.

"Today, it requires a lot more," he said. "They need to go back to school and learn to run things today. There's always more and more competition in town, more and more people trying to eat off the same plate ... I don't know if I'll ever be able to retire."

Deep down, he might not want to.

"Living the dream" is a trite expression, but in Mr. Moxley's case, it's true: He came from humble beginnings and walked away from a stable job with a major employer because he yearned for more. He took a risk, and it paid off.

Thirty-two years later, with his company's financial performance at all-time highs, Mr. Moxley is at the top of his game.

"It's been an interesting ride," he said. "It sure has."

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.


TITLE: President of Appliance Land and Furniture Land

BORN: Oct. 20, 1941, in Augusta

EDUCATION: Academy of Richmond County, graduated 1960

MILITARY: Navy, 1960-64

PROFESSIONAL: President, BrandSource South Atlantic region; board member, BrandSource national board of directors

FAMILY: Wife Gail; sons, Tommy Jr., Chris and Dan; grandson, Lance

HOBBIES: Travel, boating, golf



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